Anniversary, part two

You might want to start at the beginning of the story here.

It was a Thursday, the day I went to the county courthouse. I remember feeling angry – this wasn’t how I imagined my life, contemplating being a single mom, divorcing a man who was spiraling down into the abyss of alcoholism. He wasn’t the man I fell in love with 16 years ago. He wasn’t the man I married almost 10 years ago. Or the man I wanted to have babies with. Or the person I wanted to spend my life with. That guy was gone.

The courthouse was busy that day – or maybe it’s busy everyday. It was the first time I was ever inside. I was a little nervous about running into someone I knew, someone who knew Mike. After all, he was an attorney and had a lot of friends and colleagues who walked those halls daily.

I found the room I needed and waited my turn on a hard wooden bench in the hall. Ten minutes later, I was telling my story to a VERY young woman in flip flops and short shorts. She wasn’t really what the person imagined I would be talking to. I didn’t know what to expect, but she wasn’t it. I wasn’t sure how someone so young was going to be able to help me. Flip Flops asked a lot of questions and filled out several pages of forms.

Then she handed me a brochure with telephone numbers on it. Numbers for abused woman. “I’m not being abused,” I said. “He’s a drunk. He’s never touched me or the kids.”

“Abuse is more than just physical,” she told me. “Those names he’s calling you? The way he’s treating you? It’s not right.”

This all felt very surreal. Of all the things I wanted to remember about that day, the lighting in that tiny, windowless room stands out. It was a pathetic, yellowish lighting coming from way-too-bright overhead fluorescent lights. In a room that is used mostly by women (I assume), the lighting should be better, I thought. In this room, it was unflattering and sad. Someone coming into this room should feel good, but the lighting was any thing but confidence inspiring.

“You’re up next in the courtroom,” the Flip Flops said.

I felt my stomach knot up. Up next? I had to go to court NOW? I hadn’t thought I’d be in a courtroom on the same day as the forms I just filled out with Flip Flop’s help. I wasn’t even dressed for it – in jeans and a tee-shirt. I would have been more “serious” looking if I thought I would be going in front of a judge.

Flip Flops walked with me to the courtroom where she introduced me to an older woman. “This is Elise,” the young woman said. “She’ll be your advocate in the courtroom.”

Elise talked in whispers, walking me through what was going to happen. Then the judge walked in. The judge decided to hear from a couple sitting in the last row of the courtroom first.

I will never forget the couple’s story, that case before mine. The man was here to get visitation taken away from his ex-wife. The kids had visited their mom (his ex) the weekend before and she threw their three-year old daughter across the living room and into a wall. More than once. I felt like throwing up.

“This isn’t my life,” I thought. “Maybe my situation is not so bad.”

I wanted to leave. Instead, I cried, feeling glued to the spot I was told to stand. It was my turn.

I’m a strong woman. I’m not afraid or intimidated by anyone. I’ve worked with CEOs from Fortune 500 companies, celebrities, sports stars. No one gets me rattled. But standing here, in front of the judge, made me feel small and weak. I wondered how women – especially those who aren’t as confident as I (usually) am – do this.

I stood silently as he read the form that Flip Flops filled out. Then he spoke in a booming voice. “Why are you here?” he asked.

My voice seemed to be coming from someone else. It was quiet and I was mumbling. The judge asked me to speak up. In that softer-than-normal voice, I gave a brief overview of my reasons for pursing the order of protection. “Sounds like he’s a lazy husband,” the judge said. “That’s not illegal.”

“It’s more than that,” I said. I told him about the name-calling, the neglect of the kids including driving Ethan around while intoxicated, the destruction of our finances, the collapse of our lives.

“I’m going to grant this to you,” he said after a bit more questioning, “But it’s only good for a few weeks, then you will face him. And you better be ready because he will probably destroy you. I was hard on you today because I need to know you can take it. You can handle this, right?”

I was ushered to the side of the courtroom to wait for the paperwork to be signed. I was told the sheriff would arrive in 24-36 hours to serve the papers to Mike. Then I left.

The Last Decision

I heard from the cemetery guy this week. He picked out a “nice” spot, near a new walking bridge, close to the river, on the side of the cemetery closest to campus. “You can walk to Saint Joe’s from there,” he told me. I’m sure it’s a lovely spot.

We even settled on the date to lay Mike’s ashes to rest – August 17.

In my mind, I envision this as a very private moment for the kids and me. Maybe one of the college priests. And my mom, of course. In a way, I just want the closure. Just want it to be done. The bigger a deal is made of this, the harder I think it will be for Ethan, and that won’t be good. And, I really don’t think Mike would have wanted this to be a spectacle.


I’ve thought a lot about if I want to involve Mike’s parents. They ignored me at the showing and the funeral mass. They haven’t reached out to me or the kids (other than sending the kids each very impersonal card for birthdays). There’s no relationship between me and them or them and the kids. Hell, Mike didn’t even like them and made sure I knew it every time I talked to him.

Honestly, his parents were always assholes. There was a deep-rooted, one-way hatred toward my dad. (And my dad was the most laid back, likeable person you could EVER imagine.) It made my dad laugh, when Mike’s dad would start something with him. The laughter and trying to blow off the situation only infuriated Mike’s dad more. Which just continued the cycle of my dad irritating him and laughing. Over and over.

Things didn’t warm up with Mike’s “condition.”  They refused to come to St. Louis when I called them during Mike’s last binge. The blaming that started with the phone call telling me Mike died. The way they acted toward me, the kids and my family at the funeral. The planning of the post-mass lunch against my direct orders to NOT have a lunch.

I’m sure there’s NOTHING harder than losing a child, especially one who refused to get help. One you watched waste away, knowing there was nothing you can do to stop it, to change it. And I can’t imagine talking to my child, then finding him dead in the morning. That has to be the most difficult, awful thing imaginable.

Have I reached out to them? No. We didn’t talk when Mike was alive. They would call his cell phone – not the house phone – to make sure they didn’t have to talk to me. (Sidenote: when I say Mike hated them, this is a good example. He would let their calls go to voicemail every time. He would have to work up the strength to call them because he knew it was such an ordeal to have a conversation with those people. He usually wouldn’t return the call for two or three days, and when he did, Mike was a grouch in the hours before he placed the call and for hours afterward.)

I have no reason to reach out to the former in-laws – I am the mother of their only grandchildren. I am the keeper of the ashes. I hold the cards. And, I don’t have anything nice to say to them.


The question remains: should they be invited to the, what should I call it?, the ceremony (seems too great for what I’m planning), the event (again, too lofty), the burial (um, maybe). Involving them would only make a difficult day more awkward and painful than it needs to be. Ethan and Lauren really don’t know these people, and involving them would be weird. I don’t know how they would react to being there and part of it, so I can’t prepare the kids for what would be an amazingly dramatic performance, I’m sure.

Besides, after the mass luncheon fiasco, I can’t trust they would honor my request to keep this a very small, private, intimate affair. I imagine they would invite all sorts of random relatives who would like to spend a Friday afternoon at a rural cemetery ignoring me.

On the other hand, is it wrong to NOT notify them? Can I send a letter after the fact with the location of his remains? Am I stooping to their level of asshole-ishness if I don’t “invite” them? Does it matter? What if I sent a nice note with a map to the cemetery afterward?

I have a few weeks to decide what I’m going to do…

RANDOMNESS: Pointing Fingers and Greater Understanding

There are times I let my mind to go a bad place in which I want to question people for not seeing what was happening with Mike, and for not stopping it.

Like his parents. I never had a good relationship with them. And neither did Mike. But that’s where he lived for the last five months of his life. (To the end, Mike never let me forget that he hated it there. He blamed me for “making” him stay with his parents. I told him to get a job and then he could live anywhere he wanted. That message was NEVER well-received.)

How could they have missed the signs of liver failure? From what I heard from the coroner’s office, he was pretty yellow.

How could they have overlooked the seriousness of his lack of muscle tone? From their own accounts, Mike was extremely weak in his last week. He couldn’t walk from the bedroom to the bathroom by himself – rooms that were right next to one another in their small house.

How could they have missed the severity of the flu-like symptoms, also self-reported by his parents?

His mom told me that she wanted to take him to the hospital, but that he didn’t want to go. She told me, “As a mom, you know that if you’re child doesn’t want to do something, you can’t force them?”

Excuse me? Isn’t that the JOB of a mom? To act in her child’s best interest, regardless of if they’re 4 years old or 38 years old? If things were that bad, why didn’t she call an ambulance?

I wonder how I will explain someday to Ethan and Lauren that these very obvious signs were grossly overlooked by two capable grown-ups who should have known better and should have taken action.


When I start going down the finger-pointing-path, I realize that if I question others, I also have to examine my own actions.

I discovered the severity of Mike’s drinking when I was on maternity leave with Lauren. Until that time, I knew he drank – he always drank. Drinking wasn’t the issue – a beer after work, a martini or two on the weekends. When I look back, I really didn’t know what was happening in my own house.

Was it because I was working so much? I held a senior leadership position and put in very long hours, especially after Mike lost his job in December 2009 and before I was going on maternity leave. If I didn’t work 60+ hours a week, would I have seen the signs?

Why didn’t I question why we were getting so many calls from 800-numbers? I didn’t know until maternity leave that these calls on my caller ID were from creditors, most of whom hadn’t been paid in two, three, four months. Still, I looked at the ID and rarely questioned why . (The cordless phone was almost always dead or hidden from me, so I didn’t retrieve the messages.)

Why didn’t I push harder for why he was spending so much time in the basement? He said he was having trouble sleeping, so he wanted to sleep on the couch down there so he didn’t disturb me. He very rarely came upstairs to bed in the last few years, maybe once every three weeks or so. I asked him about it, but he held onto his sleep story.

I look back at the photos from these last few years – the few there are of him, since he was rarely with us – and the look in his eyes is distant, funny, out-of-it. You can tell by his eyes – the expression, the amount they’re open or closed, the lack of spark – that he’s drunk. Why didn’t I ask more questions?

Mike was very, very good at lying and hiding what was going on. He was also very clear on what he wanted: “I want to drink. I’m going to drink. You can’t tell me what to do.” I heard him say this at least 500 times in the last year of his life.


I’ve learned a lot in the past few years: I can’t control others. I can’t change them. People who don’t want to change, aren’t going to change. There isn’t enough guilt, screaming, uber-niceness, threats, overly accommodating, or anger to make someone do something they don’t want to do.

And I’ve also learned to be less judgmental of others. When Ethan acts up because he’s having a rough day missing his dad, and the other moms and kids are looking at us critically, I realize that they don’t know what we’re going through – this little kid has no dad, and sometimes that confusion and anger and frustration are going to come out in inappropriate ways, and I might turn the other way, knowing that he’s having a tough time, and let him get away with behavior that I would normally not tolerate. In turn, I don’t realize what other moms are going through when they’re in similar situations.

Understanding has been one of the best things to come out of this.

There’s No “Fun” in Funerals

I’ve never been to a “good” funeral. At my Grandma Harness’ funeral, the whole family fell apart, and I haven’t talked to several aunts, uncles or cousins since. At my Great Grandpa’s funeral, there was a major clash with my mom’s parents after I was wrongly accused of something unimaginable. At my Great Grandma’s funeral, there were untrue, hurtful rumors being spread about my husband.

No, it’s been my experience that funerals are just big, hot messes.

And, my husband’s funeral in January was no exception.


Regardless of circumstances, it’s tragic when a 38 year old man dies, especially when he was also a husband and a father, a man with wild potential – if only he could fight his demons. Mike was an alcoholic, in complete denial of his condition. His drinking was the reason that we separated and that I filed for divorce. His drinking caused the lying, the hiding, the emotional and mental abuse, the neglect of the kids – and I simply had enough. He had been living with his parents for nearly six months when he passed away in his sleep on a Wednesday night.

His mom called me to tell me that he was dead. I was at my new job. I remember asking over and over again, getting louder each time: “Cindy, what happened?”

And I remember being accused of having a role in his death.

“He just couldn’t get over losing you.”

“The divorce was killing him.”

“He didn’t understand why you left him.”

“You left him alone…”

Yet, they insisted on being there for the arrangements. Since the divorce wasn’t final, arrangements (and payment of everything) were my responsibility. Awkward doesn’t even begin to cover how uncomfortable it was to make those decisions – from the music to the readings to the coffin to the decision to cremate. I suppose it wouldn’t have been any easier if everything was perfect, but it wasn’t perfect. Not even close. And now, the reason I left him, the reason that our marriage failed, was the cause of his death. Alcoholism. And somehow, I was being accused of causing him to die.

The in laws kind of, sort of, apologized while we were making arrangements. They acknowledged how difficult Mike was during the time he was with them. How hard it was to see him drinking (no, flat out drunk) while he was looking you in the eye, lying, saying he was sober. I thought the first phone call might be an anomaly, the result of a mother’s pain after losing her son.

I was wrong.

After the arrangements were made, I left the funeral home with my mom and my two young kids. Walked out of the funeral home, in a town I had only visited a few times, with a poorly drawn map on a napkin directing me to some local hotels. I didn’t see or hear from the in laws for the next three days, not until the viewing on Sunday.

You know, not hearing from them was okay, for me. But I was in an unfamiliar town, with two young kids, stuck in a hotel. For three days. In my mind, it would have been courtesy to reach out, maybe offer to take the kids to dinner one night or swim with them in a pool or bring over the Christmas presents they had for them (since we never got to have Christmas with them – or Mike). Nothing.


On Sunday, my mom, the kids and I drove to the funeral home. Lauren fell asleep in the car, so my mom stayed with her while Ethan and I went in. The in laws were already there and we exchanged pleasantries. The funeral director told me that I could go in when I was ready. I asked Ethan if he wanted to stay with his grandparents while I went in. Honestly, I wanted to see how “things” looked before he came in. What did the room look like? The flowers? Where was the coffin? How did Mike look? Was he too “made up”?

Instead, Ethan grabbed my hand and said he wanted to come with me. We walked in slowly.

The room had a hideous blue carpet. The pattern will be forever burned in my mind since we only made it half way to the coffin when Ethan stopped and fell to his knees. “I don’t want to do this,” he said in a whisper.

“I don’t either, baby,” I said, dropping to the ground and grabbing him and holding him close. He climbed into my lap and I held him tightly, shielding him from the sight of the coffin while I stared at the carpet. We cried.

I reached into my bag and pulled out a grey and blue wrapped package. A child’s writing on the tag read, “To Daddy From Ethan” – it was the Christmas present that Ethan picked out, but never had a chance to give to Mike. “I want to give this to him now,” Ethan said, standing up and starting to walk toward the coffin.

“That’s why I brought it.”

I will never forget the sight of Ethan, head bowed, praying at Mike’s coffin.

Mike looked bad. His skin looked thin and loose, like he was a balloon that had deflated. Ethan didn’t seem to notice. “Why can’t we touch him?” he asked.

“Do you want to?” I asked.

Ethan reached out and touched Mike’s wedding ring with his pointer finger. Then Ethan walked over to a chair and started crying. I scooped him up and we cried together. I barely noticed that the in laws had come into the room and were now standing at the coffin.

There wouldn’t be another word exchanged between me and the in laws until I confronted Cindy at the end of the night.


The viewing was a whirlwind. So many family members (none of Mike’s family talked to me or the kids) and friends came from across the country. Two of my college friends regularly checked on the kids (who were playing in another room) and kept bottled water and tissues in my hands. I was overwhelmed by the people who made the trip – I will be forever grateful to those who made the drive or flight, who provided hugs and offered prayers, and who sent emails, letters, and Facebook messages. It was important for me to be able to share with Ethan how much his dad – and we – were loved.

There were moments of ridiculousness from the in laws. They weren’t talking to me, but there were times when I was close enough to overhear what they were saying to funeral guests. Things like, “Well, Mike just couldn’t go on without his family…” and “He’s in a better place now that he doesn’t have to worry about THAT divorce…” and “At least he died a married man, like he wanted to…”

I chose to ignore the in laws’ overtly rude comments.


At the end of the night, things were wrapping up. Friends went back to their homes or hotels. The kids were with my niece in our hotel room. And I was talking to the funeral director to wrap up a few last minute details and discussing the plans for the next day. She told me that the flowers and plants I wanted to take home would be available after the lunch following mass.

“There isn’t a lunch,” I said. “I told them I didn’t want one. Mike HATED those things, and too many people have to get on the road.”

“Um, there looks like there’s one after mass tomorrow,” she said, very uncomfortably. “I don’t know any more.”

“CINDY!!!” I yelled and ran from the room to the front door where Cindy was preparing to walk out. (She might have been purposely trying to leave before I caught up with her.)

I confronted her and she said we discussed it. “Yes, we talked about it,” I said. “And I said no. This is bullshit! You’re planning something HE would have HATED!” My rage from listening to Cindy and Darryl blaming me was finally boiling over.

“Well you can come if you want,” she said, obviously flustered.

“You planned this AFTER I told you that I didn’t want it? And I find out about it from the funeral director? No, we’re not coming. Not at all!”


The next morning was a traditional Catholic funeral mass at Mike’s childhood church. We arrived early so Ethan would have a chance to say goodbye to his dad, if he wanted. The in laws were there already. (Sidenote: the in laws are NEVER early, but for this whole event, they were two steps ahead of me – and I’m chronically early, always.)

We stood on one side of the church, they stood on the other. At one point, Darryl came over and touched my arm. “You know you’re invited to the lunch after this, right? It would be nice if you and the kids would come,” he said.

“Really?” I responded. “I found out from the funeral director last night. You KNEW I didn’t want this, but you planned it anyway, and you couldn’t CALL me to tell me? No, we’re not coming. Why would we? You’ve ignored us since we made arrangements on Thursday. Why would I bring my kids to a lunch at which they will be IGNORED by their GRANDPARENTS?”

He walked away.

Mass was a blur. I remember hearing a few of the hymns I chose – Amazing Grace, in particular. I remember Mike’s BFF from high school and college speaking. I remember communion. Otherwise, I held Ethan close. (Lauren and my mom stepped out since the baby was fussy.)

When mass ended and we walked out of the sanctuary, the funeral director pointed out where my bag was – it was filled with the registration book, cards that were dropped off, and thank you notes. The funeral director handed me Mike’s watch and wedding ring (a last minute request from Ethan before the casket was closed).

Then I noticed her.

Cindy was holding the crucifix from the casket. It was supposed to be in my bag. I walked across the room to the bag and noticed an empty box where the crucifix was supposed to be.

That bitch STOLE a crucifix. In a church. From a dead man. And his widow. And was now flaunting it. WTF?!

She was holding it at waist level, making no attempt to cover it up. She was taunting me, daring me to confront her, and I realized immediately what she was up to. Even in my cloudy anger, I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction of what she wanted. I went up to the funeral director and told her to get the crucifix back.

I stood across the room by my bag, lest anything else go missing. The funeral director returned holding the crucifix and handed it to me. I put it in the box, grabbed the bag and walked back over to my family. We packed the car and were out of the church within minutes.

That was six weeks ago. I haven’t heard from the in laws since. I have no idea if anyone went to the lunch. I have no idea if the lunch was any good.